NDN Blog

Afghanistan, not Vietnam

As I wrote the other day, the Soviet experience in Afghanistan is more instructive to those trying to find a way forward in Iraq than the American experience in Vietnam. The failure of the Soviets in Afghanistan hastened the decline of their empire, fueled global jihadism and gave radical Islamic elements a base to export chaos throughout the world. Consider the latest from Iraq, courtesy of the Washington Post:

"The U.S. military is no longer able to defeat a bloody insurgency in western Iraq or counter al-Qaeda's rising popularity there, according to newly disclosed details from a classified Marine Corps intelligence report that set off debate in recent months about the military's mission in Anbar province...

The Marines' August memo, a copy of which was shared with The Washington Post, is far more bleak than some officials suggested when they described it in late summer. The report describes Iraq's Sunni minority as "embroiled in a daily fight for survival," fearful of "pogroms" by the Shiite majority and increasingly dependent on al-Qaeda in Iraq as its only hope against growing Iranian dominance across the capital.

True or not, the memo says, "from the Sunni perspective, their greatest fears have been realized: Iran controls Baghdad and Anbaris have been marginalized." Moreover, most Sunnis now believe it would be unwise to count on or help U.S. forces because they are seen as likely to leave the country before imposing stability.

Between al-Qaeda's violence, Iran's influence and an expected U.S. drawdown, "the social and political situation has deteriorated to a point" that U.S. and Iraqi troops "are no longer capable of militarily defeating the insurgency in al-Anbar," the assessment found. In Anbar province alone, at least 90 U.S. troops have died since Sept. 1."

And this one:

"The Iraq Study Group began two days of intensive behind-closed-doors deliberations yesterday as the White House conceded that Iraq has moved into a dangerous new phase of warfare requiring changes in strategy. In a sign of the growing global concern about Iraq's fate, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan appealed for immediate steps to prevent the country from crumbling into all-out civil war.

"Given the developments on the ground, unless something is done drastically and urgently to arrest the deteriorating situation, we could be there. In fact, we are almost there," Annan said when a reporter asked about the prospects of civil war in Iraq."

Our troops can no longer quell the violence, and as we were reminded this morning, the Iraqi military cannot be counted on to stop what is becoming a Sunni-Shiite conflict. So what is the Iraq Study Group now floating as the big idea for how to deal with all this? Engage Syria and Iran in a series of regional talks. While this is something I have long favored, it seems that policy makers in Washington and their ideas have been overtaken by events in the region; and I no longer see how it is possible for this Administration, this President and even this magical Iraq Study Group to put Iraq and the region back together again.

Whether others can or will step in and help prevent Iraq and the region from sliding into further choas remains to be seen. But without the involvement of the global community, it is hard to see now how Iraq doesn't become a failed state that exports jihadism ala post-Soviet Afghanistan; and for good measure, may fuel a regional Sunni-Shiite conflict to boot.

Update: Tuesday's Times reports,not suprisingly, that Iran and its ally Hezbollah, have been training Shiite militias, and supplying them with weapons:

"WASHINGTON, Nov. 27 — A senior American intelligence official said Monday that the Iranian-backed group Hezbollah had been training members of the Mahdi Army, the Iraqi Shiite militia led by Moktada al-Sadr.

The official said that 1,000 to 2,000 fighters from the Mahdi Army and other Shiite militias had been trained by Hezbollah in Lebanon. A small number of Hezbollah operatives have also visited Iraq to help with training, the official said.

Iran has facilitated the link between Hezbollah and the Shiite militias in Iraq, the official said. Syrian officials have also cooperated, though there is debate about whether it has the blessing of the senior leaders in Syria."

A Day in the Life of Hispanic Strategy Center (HSC) Director Joe Garcia

In the midst of a well-earned vacation to Paris with his family, NDN HSC Director Joe Garcia found himself in a situation straight out of a Hollywood action blockbuster.  When a man wielding a fake gun briefly took a floor of the Miami Herald building hostage, one of his first calls was to Joe Garcia:

Varela also called Joe Garcia, a prominent exile and friend who was in Paris on vacation. Garcia missed the call but called back and heard him say: ``I'm in control here now. I'm in charge of El Nuevo Herald.''

Garcia thought it was a joke.

''I laughed, and I told him in jest that it was never a good place to be at The Herald,'' Garcia said. ``And then he hung up.''

Growing worried, Garcia later called Fiedler, Mayor Diaz and Chief Timoney.

Thankfully, the situation ended peacefully with nobody getting hurt.  And our man in Miami is a hero (with a healthy sense of humor) once again.

NDN Event Thursday- Crafting a New Economic Strategy for America

We just sent out this invite for an important, relevant event this Thursday. It's going to be very interesting, so I hope you can make it.


The last year has seen a broad, progressive campaign highlighting the ways in which this administration’s economic policies have left America weaker and stalled economic progress for most Americans. While a great deal of attention has been paid to the failure of the new conservative's foreign policy, it is now also clear that their economic strategy has failed. And voters agree. On November 7th, the American people delivered a clear and unmistakable mandate for action on the economy.

With Democrats now holding power in Congress and the 2008 elections looming, what should be the real economic priorities for progressives? What role did the economy play in the recent campaign? And with the American economy perhaps heading into a slowdown and the housing bubble continuing to deflate, what should be the Democrats' strategy for ensuring the broad-based prosperity the country needs?

To talk more about these issues, NDN’s Globalization Initiative has assembled a panel of prominent experts from respected progressive institutions, to look at what our priorities should be.

I hope you will join us this Thursday, November 30th for an important forum on the future of progressive economic policy. The forum will be held from 12:00 pm – 2:00 pm, at the Phoenix Park Hotel, 520 North Capitol Street, NW.

Our panelists will be:

Please join NDN for to discuss all this, as we and others attempt to craft a new economic strategy for America in the early days of the 21st century. RSVP to Tracy Leaman at tleaman@ndn.org or 202-842-7213. I hope you will join us.

Real Ethics Oversight?

Today's (free online) WSJ article on lobbying reform goes beyond the laundry list of restrictions: meals, corporate jet use, former members on the floor during votes, trips to Scotland to research golf and globalization, etc and looks at the broader question of how will these new rules be enforced?

The current system of self-policing through the House and Senate Ethics Committees is strained if not broken.  Beginning in the mid-1990s there was a truce period in which neither Democrats nor Republicans were investigated for potential ethics violations.  The truce made Congress an investigation-free zone for years, until the Delay-Abramoff scandal became too big to ignore.

Is it hoping for too much to think that the ethics committees will take a more robust stance in this new Congress and enforce the new and the old rules?  Or, is it time for an "Independent Office of Public Integrity" empowered to investigate members of Congress, as well as regulate lobbying.  As you would expect, Congress is moving very slowly towards creating an oversight body with jurisdiction over, well, Congress:

House and Senate leaders are mulling creating an office to monitor lobbyists' disclosure reports, or enhancing the powers of existing offices to take on that job.

But so far, neither the House nor the Senate proposal would allow independent scrutiny of the actions of lawmakers themselves. The job of investigating and disciplining them would remain in the Senate and House ethics committees...

...Ms. Pelosi earlier this year proposed enhancing the powers of Congress's inspector general's office to handle disclosure reports by lobbyists. But it didn't extend that office's jurisdiction to ethics allegations against members of Congress. Aides say she is now considering backing the idea of a stronger independent office.

Is Washington in touch with what is happening in the Middle East?

In reading the papers this morning you get the sense that the complexity of our challenge in the Middle East is not well understood by the political dialogue in Washington these days.  So much of the emphasis is on getting our troops out of Iraq, rather than looking at what is the best course for a region that seems to be growing more unstable by the day.  I offered some thoughts yesterday, but as Bush prepares to meet with the Iraqi Prime Minister here are some additional things to chew on:

1. Getting the Iraqis to take more responsibility for their own security.  You hear this phrase said every day.  But what does it mean?  Who are the "Iraqis" we are refering too? The militias, the government? The Sunnis, the Shiites, the Kurds? As a story in the Post today relates this admirable goal seems both politically and operationally unachievable in the short term. 

2.  The Jordanian King yesterday said he believes the Middle East is on the verge of three different, interelated and very dangerous civil wars.  Israeli-Palestinian, Lebanese and Iraqi.   

3.  There has not been enough attention paid to the regional hegemonic aspirations of Iran, and the difficult Sunni-Shiite, Arab-Persian conflicts which undergird a great deal of what is happening in Iraq today.  The American invasion of Iraq created the first Shiite-led Arab state in the modern era, something that was never going to sit well with the Sunni dominated Arab states of the Middle East.  Did we understand what we were doing here? Or what we are proposing as a reasonable long-term governing structure in Iraq?

Don't know about you but I am worried that the Iraq Study Groups recommendations may have already been overtaken by events and the complexity of the Middle East.  For those of you who are Graham Greene fans all of this has a sad and familiar ring to it. 

Finding new words to talk about what is happening in the world

With control of Congress comes the opportunity for Democrats to not just set the nation's agenda but also to find new and better ways to describe the challenges America faces today.  A lot of work will need to be done to liberate America from the simplistic "truthiness" of the Bush era, but I offer three suggestions on areas that need an immediate effort to find new words to help us better understand our world:

1. Our "War in Iraq" should be renamed our "occupation of Iraq," or most accurately, our "failed occupation of Iraq."  To describe what is happening in Iraq, and what our troops are being tasked to do as a "war" is simply not an accurate description of what is our greatest foreign policy challenge.  

2. The "war on terror" and "battle against global jihadism" as the central organizing principle of our foreign policy.  Increasingly, events of great import simply don't fit into this very narrow frame.  Think of a nuclear North Korea, the worsening of our relations with Latin America, the slipping of Russia into a totalitarian police state,global pandemics like AIDS and bird flu. migration and immigration challenges, the rise of China, global climate change, our dependence on foreign energy sources, globalization itself and most importantly the current struggle between the Sunnis and Shias in Iraq, and the related rise of Iran as a regional hegemon. None of these fit neatly into the "war on terror" frame.  

I've always felt that "winning the war on terror" and "defeating jihadism" are really more tactical than strategic goals.  Given the collapse of our foreign policy and our global credibility, America is due for a debate about the strategic goals of our foreign policy in a new century.  The best articulation I'm aware of is one of the most standard- that we should be moving the world towards democracy, liberty, free markets and the rule of law.  Winning the "war on terror" is a tactic to help us achieve these more strategic foreign policy goals.  For as we learned after WWI, we can militarily defeat an enemy but not secure a lasting peace if our defeated enemy do not become successful democracies. 

3.  Afghanistan, not Vietnam.  I believe the most accurate historically analogy for what is happening in Iraq today is not America's experience in Vietnam but the Soviet experience in Afghanistan.  As the President's recent trip showed while America may have lost the battle for Vietnam, the West won the war for Vietnam and against communism.  With Vietnam now on the verge of joining the WTO the Vietnam saga has a happy ending.  It is now neat and clean.  The bad guys may have won but in the end were defeated. 

The Soviet experience in Afghanistan doesn't have such a happy ending.  The Soviet defeat weakened them so that it helped bring down their own empire.  The jihadis came out of Afghanistan battled hardened, and ready to take their fight to the global stage.  The failed state of Afghanistan itself became a base for global jihadism, and exported chaos throughout the world.  It is a story that is still ongoing, and as of today, does not have a happy ending. 

In fact the Soviet abandonment of Afghanistan and what happened next there should be a dramatic lesson for those looking to find a new and better way in Iraq.  Pulling our troops out and leaving Iraq to a bloody regional sectarian war, and leaving Al-Qaeda with a beachhead in western Iraq - as they had in Afghanistan - seems to be a very real and very unappealing potential outcome of all the potential outcomes in Iraq. 

Game time for the Democrats

I hope Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid are resting up this weekend.  With Iraq and perhaps the Middle East slipping further and further into chaos, an Administration still running our foreign policy that has little credibility abroad or at home, and no easy or good options for our occupation in Iraq, our two new Congressional leaders are about see the early days of their tenure overwhelmed by a truly momentus foreign policy challenge. 

Like Bush, their time in office may end up being defined by how they manage the worsening Middle East crisis.  Did their involvement lead to a better outcome? Worse? Has America benefited from their leadership? Do they have the staff and organization to manage a crisis of this magnitude? Are they prepared to let other parts of the job go as they work on the central challenge of our day, one that now appears to dwarf all others?

Important questions all.  No matter what our new Speaker and Majority Leader believed they would be doing for the next few months, it is now clear that dealing with our failure in Iraq will be the defining issue of their early days.

A big debate about our 21st century economic strategy is coming

As we've been writing about for more than 18 months, America is due for a big conversation about how globalization is playing out in the early part of the 21st century.   If you are in DC next Thursday, please come by for what will be the first of a series of forums we will be conducting on crafting "a new economic strategy for America."

To me this new strategy should have four main goals: raising the standard of living for American workers, enhancing American's global competitiveness, bringing our government's revenue and expenditures into greater balance and renewing our committment to trade liberalization. 

Change is already on the horizon.  Progress is likely to be made in 2007 on immigration reform and the minimum wage, two issues we've worked a great deal on.  Less clear is what will happen with the various trade deals up for consideration and the revenue/expenditure problem.  

One of my greatest concerns about the emerging economic debate is the natural tendency to consider any one of these four big goals on its own, without understanding how all these complex pieces fit together.  A very good example of this complexity is captured in a thoughtful Washington Post piece today, which discusses the very dire economic and political impact on Latin America if the US slows down its commitment to liberalized trade in the region. 

Happy Thanksgiving all

Lots to be thankful for this year my friends. 

But of course there is much to do.

Swansong of a failed congress in the key of GOP

True to form, the outgoing 109th Congress is planning on adjourning its lame-duck session early and punting almost $500 billion dollars in unfinished spending bills to the Democratic led 110th Congress in the New Year.  Josh Marshall makes a half-serious argument that these responsibility-shirking GOPers should have their pay garnered for failing to complete the minimum requirements of their job, passing and paying for the budget.

 As we have come to expect from the Republican leadership, the reasons behind this decision are about politics and not about serving the American people.  Apparently Republicans have finally become embarrassed about the massive expansion in pork that has occurred under their watch.  Senator Jim DeMint used procedural delays to end budget negotiations in the Senate, leaving his spokesman to explain that "The last thing Republicans need is an end-of-Congress spending spree as our last parting shot as we walk out the door."

The White House wanted Congress to pass the spending bills in the lame duck session, and this decision to leave town with the work undone is another sign of the President's weakening political position.Republicans are also hoping that Democrats will be unable to pass popular elements of their "First 100 Hours" plan right away, because they have to deal with the leftover spending bills. 

The consequences of this dereliction of duty include cuts in reimbursements to Doctors under Medicare that will take effect January 1, 2007. 

No wonder people have such a low opinion of this Congress.  Unlike ordinary Americans, these outgoing Republican Congressional leaders don't even try to pay/pass the bills anywhere close to on time.

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